The story of Susan Boyle is a neatly fashioned reality that on closer examination is cynically manipulative and deceptive.

ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent (a later day version of the long-running Opportunity Knocks) is an unsurpassed practitioner of helping transform the hopeful ranks of amateur contestants into a global phenomenon through clever and opportunist viral marketing on YouTube. The show’s latest online discovery to send media into a frenzy of saturation coverage is Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old Scottish woman whose “ugly duckling” triumph on the talent show two weekends ago has now seen her breaking all kinds of YouTube records thanks to a clip of her Saturday night live. One British tabloid dubbed her “The Singing Virgin”.

Her emotionally affecting TV performance of I Dreamed A Dream from Les Miserables became one of those elaborately stage managed confounding “a star is born” moments so beloved by TV suits. Not only did she elicit wild enthusiasm from the studio audience and millions of viewers at home; but most particularly the three judges including notorious American Idol judge, jury and executioner Simon Cowell; who also owns a good chunk of the business behind the Britain’s Got Talent franchise. While there’s no denying the impact made by this frumpy and self-declared un-kissed church chorister, you can only wonder about its YouTube life that is now heading toward 100 million views (the record is 120 million), including 20 million within the first 24 hours of its posting.

That’s the site’s highest ever volume video download for that period.

If you thought the essence of YouTube is founded in ordinary people with no agenda other than wanting others to share in a posting they find enjoyable; what do you make of viral marketing clips like Boyle’s? Of the ethos behind media corporations carefully manufacturing a clip designed to replicate this social inter-action while posing it as some kind of people’s choice video hit?

Such has been the success of the clip, Boyle’s instant celebrity media blitz has seen her already interviewed by CNN’s Larry King. Boyle is following the same viral trajectory used by the show to turn 2007 winner Paul Potts into a YouTube smash.

First time round Potts was sold as a humble Welsh car phone salesman. In reality he was actually the store manager where he worked. Also before he warbled his way through Neesun Dorma in a televised audition before the same Simon Cowell-led panel now effusively singing Boyle’s praises; Potts claimed to suffer from a lack of confidence. Yet he’d been a Bristol City Councillor for years, and had already sung in leading roles with a half-decent amateur opera company. He had also performed in front of 15,000 with members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

So when Boyle’s triumph closely mirrored the Paul Potts stunning un-glamorous routine — although much more genuine in her nervous amateur status, clearly the show had another YouTube hit in the wings. But of course you are also reliant on the hackneyed routine of judges professing to have no idea of what she had in store for them. Despite the fact she’d already won through to make it to her big night; and everyone needing to buy into believing the show’s co-producer Simon Cowell was given absolutely no prior insight into any ability of the surreptitious Scot?

An essential ingredient in this calculated recipe is how the judging panel plays its conniving part in being completely taken by surprise. To appear caught off guard or even stupefied as they exhibit the full range of exaggeratedly disbelieving reactions. How Boyle can wipe the condescending smirk from their faces to be replaced by raised eyebrows and barely contained elation as they breathlessly declare “well I never” as the studio audience goes nuts!

Judge Amanda Holden, post standing ovation, later told the media how the panel had been “very cynical” as Boyle stepped up to sing; but Susan’s effort had been the “biggest wake-up call ever”. But just in case another 45 million or so in the UK missed this phenomenon let alone the rest of cyberspace — why not edit up an emotionally charged YouTube video capsule?

Then there’s the debate being generated about our innate prejudices regarding beauty, and come to that age as well. Of course if Susan looked remotely like the older Madonna (50) it wouldn’t have been nearly so mind blowing.

Yet as if all this hasn’t been enough; Cowell added another beguiling twist last weekend that might yet give Susan a run for the show’s prize money. Shaheen Jafargholi, a 12-year-old Welsh contestant, was stopped by Cowell mid-way through his hopeful show stopper, as Cowell opined it wasn’t happening for him and could he sing something else? Of course he could and they just happened to have the backing tape all ready to go as he launched into a blisteringly good performance of Smokey Robinson’s Who’s Loving You that became a staple for a young Michael Jackson with the Jackson Five.

How surprising that Shaheen’s makeover from knife’s edge reject to wannabe superstar thanks to Cowell’s prescient intervention, wowed the audience and stunned the judges. But then he’s been singing Michael Jackson professionally around Europe in a touring Thriller stage show, as well as having appeared in numerous TV shows.

The media is also played for suckers when they swallow hook, line and sinker the idea that Boyle has freewill when it now comes to suddenly making decisions about a pending record deal. All of these talent shows come with contractual caveats assigning various rights to the show they appear on. So Boyle has already met with officials of Sony-BMG who have first dibs on the show’s talent via their deal with Cowell’s Syco label (geddit). Naturally Boyle said she would be happy to work with Cowell in any future recording plans because she trusts him. She could have added “because I have no choice”.

Just to bring everything full circle; who should be in Australia at the moment on another visit but Paul Potts. Sometimes the global village appears no bigger than your backyard!

You can see Boyle and Shaheen on YouTube — where the unexpected happens!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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